Freddie E. Williams II Talks Digital Part 1 of 2

Posted by on December 13th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

To view the accompanying video, click here.

Interview by Nathan Wilson

Freddie E. Williams II has had a career in comics that most artists could only dream of achieving.  Until a convention appearance in San Diego in 2005 where he submitted a portfolio to DC Comics’ talent search, Williams’ entrance into comics had been with shorter stints in 2005 as a penciller and inker with Image’s Noble Causes as well as a few one-shots.  The 2005 San Diego Comic-Con changed all that as his break into the “big two” came with Grant Morrison’s four-issue Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle #2.

Talent and determination combined with a growing reputation for delivering his artwork either ahead of schedule or precisely on time won him the continued attention of DC, who assigned Williams as a fill-in artist on Aquaman and eventually made him the ongoing artist for Robin only one year after his SDCC portfolio review.  In addition to his continued DC work with Robin, Freddie illustrated one-shots and shorter runs on titles such as 52, Firestorm: The Nuclear Man, The Outsiders, Blue Beetle, Countdown and The Flash.  In 2009, Williams teamed with Matt Sturges on DC’s six-issue Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! and in early 2010 continued with Sturges on JSA All-Stars for 11 issues.  In addition to Morrison and Sturges, over the course of only five years, Williams has also collaborated with Adam Beechen, Mark Waid, Peter Milligan, Chuck Dixon and Fabian Nicieza on nearly all of DC’s top-tier character properties.

Williams attributes his success and abilities to his 1999 conversion from traditional pencil-and-ink work to a completely digital art environment.  Working digitally for more than years now, a transition and process that he describes in great detail with instructions and guidance in his The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics (2009), Williams took time away from his hectic schedule to speak with me about his digital canvas artwork and to record a video of his process.

NATHAN WILSON: Are you a completely digital artist or do you still complete roughs or page layouts traditionally?

FREDDIE E. WILLIAMS II: The vast majority of the time, I am all digital. Pages that I think will sell well or if I feel like I need to do some multimedia on a page like some ink splatters or some really brushy sort of work, which doesn’t come up very often, I’ll do the setup for the page digitally and then print out the structure onto art board and then finish it off traditionally so that I have an actual piece of original art later, that I can either sell or just so I can paint on it with ink splatters and stuff that feel more organic.  Doing work on paper I probably do three or four pages an issue.  I almost always do all my covers because those sell very well.  The original art market is too big and too profitable to ignore, so that was part of the reason to do it on paper.  But it’s also still fun to do stuff on paper.  JSA All-Stars #3 had a whole bunch of wild, splatter effects, so it was cool to cut out my little masks and attach them to the art and then splatter around it and clean it up.  It was like a return to the old days I guess.

WILSON: So in some ways, a special occasion can necessitate a change in media then.  Was your sequence in Grant Morrison’s Batman #700 an example of mixed media or something entirely digital?

WILLIAMS: No, that was 100% digital.  That was a 3-D model that me and a friend of mine named Drew both created.  There’s some behind the scenes projects I work on for DC that will show up in a comic book here and there but it’s basically establishing a definitive reference for the Batcave or the Batmobile or something like that, the Wayne Tower, the new Birds of Prey headquarters.  Basically, I create a 3-D version of that for inner-office reference or if a new artist comes on a book, the editors will give them these files I’ve made of the 3-D models so they can use those for reference.

WILSON: What specifically convinced you — the “ah ha” moment or awakening, if you will — that digital was the right move for you and your art?

WILLIAMS: The first one on a technology level; I was working for Hallmark Cards for seven-plus years, in downtown Kansas City.  They put you through some pretty intense training, which is a really good thing for me.  I knew Photoshop, which is how I got hired on there, but I learned a lot there though during that time.  My brain always comes from a comic-book point of view, a filter for comics — whenever I read a book or see a movie, even if it has nothing to do with comics, it’s all filtered into my mind as “how can this be used towards comics” or “what would this be if it was a comic.” It’s the same thing with technology.  Any time I see a piece of technology I picture to myself how can I use this towards a comic book.  So, one of those moments is when I was introduced to Hallmark’s work flow of how they used Photoshop and Illustrator is what comic books and Hallmark Cards have in common.  The definitive moment though that got me to branching into doing digital comic book work is when I was working for a guy who is a friend of mine now who was a very finicky editor for an independent comic book.  I would get a script from him, I would create thumbnails on paper, scan them in, and then e-mail them to him.  He would have a whole bunch of changes.  When I would first get these notes I would get back out my roughs, I had drawn on paper and erase a bunch of stuff, then redraw, then rescan, re-email, and that takes a lot of time.  So I started altering some of my roughs in the computer since they weren’t very big changes and I had them scanned in already, using the lasso stuff to resize stuff.  As I got more comfortable doing that I started doing the entire layouts digitally.  That was a big deal for me and I started doing more and more of that, seeing how much more I could add to the digital pages, detail-wise or final-line-art-wise that cut out the time of drawing it on paper and having to scan it.  That was probably anywhere from late 1999 to early 2001.

WILSON: Even though you mention having a comic mind, were you always working on comics even while you were at Hallmark then?  How did you make that transition and learn that comics and Hallmark cards shared the same production methods?

WILLIAMS: I’ve always had an interest in comic books.  That’s been my main goal ever since the earliest I can remember, so that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.  Even when I was working at Hallmark, my goal was  to get into drawing comics for a living.  Hallmark was a great job, it was the best 9-5 job I’ve ever had, and really great people and the pay was good, but comics has always been my goal.  I had studied and read about how comics were created and about some comic-book artists’ traditional work flow, which is to draw on printer-size paper to get your layout, usually then you drive to Kinkos to get that blown up to 11×17, and then you lightbox that onto your art board in light blue and then start drawing on your art board from there.  Just the lightboxing part of that process alone, would be enough to make me never want to draw on paper again (laughs).  What it came down to was that scanning was a pain and so was running to Kinkos and then lightboxing those are all very meticulous things.  Some artists, when they have enough money, will have an assistant to do those things for them, but this is of course before I would have ever dreamed of hiring somebody to do that stuff for me.  By doing all of that stuff on the computer, you can save a ton of time! Instead of drawing a small rough layout (because sketching dynamicly can be aided by drawing small, you can just zoom way out in photoshop, making your document size look small, then instead of getting the rough layout blown up and lightboxing it, you can just zoom back in to the art, and draw right over the top of the digital roughs you just drew on your screen.  If you want you can still print all that out in light blue right on the art board, instead of lightboxing, so even if those are the only steps you do digitally, you’re still saving yourself a lot of time.

WILSON: With digital comic’s rising popularity and greater availability now more than ever, do you find more artists transitioning to entirely digital work environments to accommodate the shift in media?

WILLIAMS: Some might, but I don’t think it’s a primary motivation.  Right now there’s a nebulous concept of what the digital market is going to be.  Looking at somebody like Jim Lee who is very encouraging in wanting to have content digitally offered in some fashion — he’s still working traditionally.  I don’t think he feels any pressure to work in a digital fashion.  I don’t think that just because the end destination of something is supposed to be digital, means that you have to create it digital from the start.  That shouldn’t be the reason, in my opinion, to make someone want to go digital because their artwork will end up in a digital medium.  In general, I think it would be a smart move, though, for artists to look into the digital workflow because of the versatility and the time benefits it offers.

WILSON: Do you know if Jim Lee has tried digital methods though and why he has decided to remain within a traditional platform?

WILLIAMS: I toured the Wildstorm Studios after the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con and although I haven’t sat there and watched him work, I know Jim has one of the large Cintiqs, right next to his drawing table.  I believe the way he still works is that he does everything straight to the board.  He posts a lot of his process on Twitter (JimLee00), all of you should check that out.  I think when Jim gets to the very end after having the art scanned, he’ll use the Cintiq and Photoshop to clean up and tweak stuff digitally.  I’ve seen a video of him drawing the character Mayhem, holding two guns, but on the art board, Jim only drew one of those guns, then after the art was scanned, he used the lasso tool to duplicate it and move the gun into the character’s other hand so he didn’t have to draw both guns.  In short, Jim Lee works traditionally, and still only uses the computer as a post-production tool.

WILSON: It seems that it’s difficult to determine who is a digital artist and who isn’t in terms of getting credit for doing comics digitally or being asked about their art process and then admitting they do the artwork digitally.

WILLIAMS: There are quite a few who use various tools like Photoshop, Manga Studio and Google Sketchup, to varying degrees, and for quite a while now.  I think part of the reason that some artists don’t openly speak about the stuff they do on the computer is because they might only do a little bit, like Lee, so it’s just an additional tool they use, not a mainstay in their mind.  Then there are others who feel like they don’t want to give up trade secrets or feel it might diminish the impact of their work if someone knew they worked digitally.  People have asked me if I felt I was giving away trade secrets in the DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics.  Honestly, I’ve never felt that way about stuff.  I’ve always felt like talking about it and comparing notes.  I’ve learned stuff from other people.

WILSON: Do you find that digital comics reflect your art better than traditional print methods for monthly comics?

WILLIAMS: The short answer would be no, but there’s a caveat to that I would add: The exception is with coloring.  Not to get too geek technical but the color range that can be achieved using four-, five- or six-color printing methods at the printing presses, that range of colors is called the gamut.  Even though you can hit a lot of colors at the printing press, you cannot achieve as many colors as you can on your computer screen.  Those really fluorescent colors of a mist or energy form is not achievable in normal printing methods unless they use a neon ink or spot-color printing process.  For example, the covers of JSA All-Stars, I do the pencils, inks and colors for them.  When I’m creating energy effects or whatever it is, I can go in Photoshop and check the gamut warnings to see if Photoshop is smart enough that it can say that these colors will not be achieved at the printing press.  If you’re doing it on a delivery system that will eventually be on an iPad or computer screens, you can go as bright and crazy as you want to.  I’ve been basically trying to create what looks like pen-and-ink artwork for print using digital means.  I don’t want it to look like it’s anything different than I did before.  That’s what I like.  Early CG attempts were too airbrushy and too rounded.

WILSON: I know that in some cases, preview images on DC’s The Source blog have shown pictures of comic pages that look much darker in print when you’re holding the monthly book.  Have you ever experienced this or do you ever worry that what you create digitally may not carry over as clearly to the print medium?

WILLIAMS: Yes, but I would include that, in the coloring aspect, the problem’s a limited color gamut.  DC has pretty good quality control, meaning if they received press proofs that were out of whack or color lines were shifted, they’re not going to accept that. Of course there are going to be press variants and dot gain, a difference in the gamut and all that stuff. As for my line art, the answer is still no.  The coloring is what is subject to the biggest variants at the printing press.

WILSON: Since most artists have to scan original art into Photoshop or Manga Studio, do you believe cost and investment in the hardware and software or a simple lack of knowledge (or maybe even fear) about the technology is a greater barrier for most artists adopting a completely digital platform for comic art?

WILLIAMS: If you’re asking me if all those things are limiting or causing hesitations in going digital, then the answer is yes.  If you’re asking me which one is the biggest obstacle then I would say it would be combination the money involved In purchasing the hardware and software.  A guy who is working all traditional and has for years, and he has a monthly deadline he has to keep up with, he is under the gun deadline wise.  He knows that the way he’s currently working has worked out well for him for years.  So, they may feel like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Why spend what little free time he does have away from work or sacrifice time to try to find another way to do stuff he already knows how to do.  To go out and spend six-and-a-half grand for a new computer system, scanner and printer and all the software and then start from the ground-up learning the hardware and software.  It can feel like a long limb for them to climb out on.

WILSON: I know traditional art supplies can be costly too, but I would imagine they’re nowhere near the cost of the technology involved here for the Wacom interfaces.

WILLIAMS: This is a weak point, but I’m going to make it anyway (laughs).  Because I don’t use paper nearly as much any more and because I don’t use pencils and ink as much any more.  I use them a tenth as much as I would if I was drawing a book traditionally.  The majority of the time I’m using those supplies is when I’m at a convention.  Those dollars do add up and accumulate as well and help to offset some of the expense of the digital stuff.

WILSON: I don’t want to reinforce the joke Brian Bolland has in the introduction to your work about pushing a button and the work automatically appears in Photoshop, so was it mainly a gradual process of trial and error for you to learn Photoshop could be used this way to create comics?  Was it like learning a new language or perhaps new method to produce the work?

WILLIAMS: When someone who doesn’t use a computer hears that I do art digitally, I think they picture in their mind that I just pick up a microphone that’s hooked up to the computer and say, “Draw Batman,” and then I go, “Draw him better” (laughs).  It was a very gradual process, one that is still evolving for me even today.

WILSON: It sounds like a very individualized experience, but did you learn this process solely on your own or did you have the benefits of learning from somebody else who had experimented with digital comic art?

WILLIAMS: I would say that it was probably 60% of my own trial and error, just making stuff up — the other 40% was guided with previous experience and my time with Photoshop from Hallmark.

WILSON: At Hallmark, was the hardware such as the Wacom available then or was this all mouse and keyboard direction?  I imagine there must of have been some digital pen interface?

WILLIAMS: We used a Wacom tablet interface called an Intuos.  Bamboos, which is what I use now, and the Cintiqs hadn’t come out yet.

WILSON: Have you tried the Cintiq?

WILLIAMS: I have tried the Cintiq, the combination of the heat that comes off of it and the fact that my hand was in the way of the artwork on the screen, has made me stick to my Bamboo.  Though I’ve got my eye on a slate computer, Axiotron’s Modbook Pro. It’s like a 15-inch Cintiq that you can carry around with you … due out the first half of 2011. That could be a game changer for me … We’ll see

WILSON: Was it difficult for you to go from paper to the Wacom tablet interface in terms of the touch and feel, and the pressure you’d put with tools against a paper surface?

WILLIAMS: It wasn’t very hard.  It was a process that was very gradual.  It took a good year-plus to do my first all-digital page.  That to me was a very comfortable learning curve because it was self-propelled.  It wasn’t like somebody stormed into my office and exclaimed, “You’re working traditionally today, but you have to flip the switch and go all digital by this Friday!” So, pretty comfortable.

WILSON: Have you ever discovered any limitations working digitally that you recognize could be fixed or overcome through traditional work, or vice versa?

WILLIAMS: I think anything that you wanted to do digitally, you could probably could.  You can emulate a traditional feel.  Painter can emulate a lot of traditional art looks and techniques with its interface.  When I’m working on a commission there’s an entertainment value in having no undo or going back in time to your History palette in Photoshop to change the way someone’s face looks or if I went out of control with an ink brush. That is a fun experiment.  I wouldn’t want to be held captive by that though on a regular basis and that’s one of the reasons I don’t work all-traditional because I like the versatility of being able to change my layout or flip the position of somebody.

WILSON: Do you ever miss the so-called “happy accidents” that would occur with traditional tools?

WILLIAMS: They can still happen digitally, but there is more control digitally so it’s harder to have them.  A good example of one that can’t happen digitally is if you’re going for a spatter effect.  On paper, you might take a toothbrush, dip it in ink, and then flick your finger through it to create a spray.  You can’t predict every dot in the spray, but you know you want it somewhere over here.  Working digitally, it’s harder to create that sort of randomness.  I spent some time with my wife a few years ago filling up pieces of scratch Bristol board with textures and spatters in black India ink, let them dry, and then scanned them all in so that I have a library of textures that look organic that I can call upon and bring into the digital artwork.  For JSA All-Stars #3, the cover where Magog is getting punched in the face and there’s all these brush spatters in the background, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do that traditionally because I wanted it to have that random, visceral, kinetic feel to it that’s hard to produce digitally.  You still can, but it would be harder.

WILSON: How has your digital process evolved since your time on Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle in relation to technological advancements, your style, and your outlook on comic art?

WILLIAMS: My art style, I feel, has changed considerably.  I’ve been doing a lot of things differently.  Like character proportions and storytelling, I think, I hope it’s improved, but whatever the case is, I like the direction I’m going in now more than what I was doing back then.  What I was doing back then, I still enjoyed, but I’ve grown as an artist.  Technology-wise, the difference for the work flow has been the introduction 3-D (with Google Sketchup) and in Photoshop, there has been the introduction of java scripts.  I was introduced to Photoshop JavaScripts, when I did a presentation at Hallmark of how I draw comic books for DC at their monthly digital café meetings on digital work flows, new processes, etc. After my presentation, someone I had never met, but who has since become one of my best friends, named Jay, asked if I had ever used them, and I was like “Javawhat?” We have been working together on Photoshop JavaScripts ever since.

WILSON: Interesting, what do JavaScripts do in Photoshop?

WILLIAMS: Photoshop JavaScripts, are like really advanced macros and actions to do multiple changes within or across files.  They can change the names of layers for you, resize images and a whole bunch of cool stuff like that.  The JavaScripts have done a lot for me in what I call cardboard cutouts.  One of the ways that I work and recommend other people to work is to draw the entire background as if your characters aren’t going to be there and then on another layer above that, make a drawing of your character.  You make a cardboard cutout of that character by creating a knockout layer behind your character but above your background line art.  There’s a big shortcut using JavaScripts for cardboard cutouts; I offer that tool on my website

WILSON: Would you say that your writers and editors know beforehand about your digital work and has this ever affected your assignments?  To put it another way, has there been any apprehension of you working digitally from writers or editors that you know of for a specific book?

WILLIAMS: That’s a good question.  It’s not the first thing I say to a writer or an editor.  It’s not like I make it clear to them that I work digital.  If they want to know, I’ll ramble on for hours just like I am with you right now (laughs).  There has been some mentioning though. Like Matt Sturges:  When he and I started working together, I think he had an issue with a bunch of cars or a crowd of people and in parenthesis he wrote, “Freddie, can you just create one car and then clone it all over,” which I didn’t do because it would have been pretty noticeable.  It was obvious he was aware of it and was trying to help me out or think of way to use it as a benefit.  As far as a prejudice, I don’t think I’ve encountered a prejudice of people realizing I work digitally and then backing away from their enjoyment of it.  To my knowledge, I haven’t faced that especially with editors and writers.  I think if I was the first guy to do this, it would probably freak them out (laughs).

WILSON: I remember your story in the DC Comics Guide book about your apprehension of telling the editor that worked digitally, so I’m curious if artists have an apprehension of going digital if a similar fear exists on the part of the writers or editors who just don’t know the technology or have experience with it.

WILLIAMS: I’ve yet to face that.  As a matter of fact, I’ve faced the opposite, where the editors are openly amazed by the process.  They’re more fascinated or interested.  Editors only care about if the artist is able to create good-looking art and in a timely fashion.  Other than that, they usually don’t care.  If you were inking with a Snickers bar on a brown paper sack, but it looked awesome and you could do it on a regular basis, they would not care.  They’d say, “Awesome, just keep it up.”  And that is how I work now, it’s the Snickers-brown-paper-sack technology that I haven’t told anyone about (laughs). Look for that in coming months.

In the conclusion of this interview tomorrow, Freddie Williams II talks about his typical work day and pacing stories without a full script.

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